Garry McCarthy Under the Gun
UNDER THE GUN: After a surprisingly chill NATO, Chicago’s police superintendent was the man of the hour. But the recent spate of violent weekends, and fear that the body count could continue to rise as summer marches on, threaten to tarnish the resumé of this one-time rising star
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The police chief and the mayor after a violent Memorial Day weekend
Other than his fondness for business suits, McCarthy, 53, is a cop straight from central casting: tough-guy attitude, stocky build, strong chin, thick neck, small mustache, heavy New York accent. All he ever wanted was to join the police force, and his arrival in Chicago is the latest stop on a meteoric rise that he never expected. “For the last seven years that my mom was alive [she died in 2004], she lived in an apartment downstairs from me,” McCarthy recalls. “So when I came home from work, I’d make a point to stop in. She always asked me, ‘Did you ever think you would go this far?’ And I always said, ‘No.’ ”
McCarthy grew up in an Irish Catholic family in Pelham Bay, a working-class neighborhood in the Bronx. His father, James, was a detective with the New York Police Department and a hero to Garry, his youngest son, who recalls that his father told him to “do better” and not follow in his footsteps. But McCarthy, who attended Catholic grammar and high schools and played football and baseball at the State University of New York at Albany, signed up for the NYPD in July 1981, two months after he graduated from college.
James McCarthy had a heart condition and died two years after his son joined the force. Inheriting his father’s police shield, McCarthy quickly distinguished himself as a beat cop. Other officers were soon talking about the young patrolman who had a knack for making arrests that mattered, busting people who were armed and dangerous. “They started saying that my initials didn’t stand for Garry McCarthy,” he recalls. “They stood for Gun Magnet.”
McCarthy made sergeant at the unusually young age of 26. He kept going, becoming a captain after only 11 years on the job. “At that point, I thought that was the end of my career because I wasn’t hooked up,” he says, referring to his lack of clout among law enforcement higher-ups. “And then, as fate would have it, Bill Bratton came along.”
Bratton had been the top cop in Boston, and his crime-fighting strategies as commissioner of the NYPD in the mid-1990s made him a legend in police circles. As McCarthy explains: “He kind of changed the way we did things so that they had less to do with seniority and more to do with achievement.”
McCarthy is referring to Bratton’s use of the CompStat system, which collects data about everything from curfew violations to murders and then spits out reports that show how each district is performing. These numbers allow the police chief to hold officers and their superiors accountable for results, or lack of them, mainly through frequent no-holds-barred meetings with the command staff. “I got to show my wares at CompStat,” says McCarthy, who earned his bosses’ attention by detailing his successes. “And, quite frankly, I did very well.”
He says that much of his policing philosophy grew out of Bratton’s approach, which worked so well that the city’s subsequent police chiefs rode it to historic drops in crime. Simply put, Bratton did three things: First, he implemented CompStat. Second, he acted on the “broken windows” theory; that is, he instructed cops to crack down on minor offenses—curfew violations, loud music, graffiti, public intoxication, and so on—because any bad deed could lead to more serious criminal behavior. Third, he collapsed the layers of bureaucracy, eliminating middle managers and emphasizing the job of the beat cop. “It has to do with accountability,” explains McCarthy. “If [officers] don’t have a beat, if they’re not accountable for anything, all they’re doing is going from job to job.”
Bratton’s three-part approach was so successful in New York—the murder rate was cut in half during his roughly two-year tenure—that it became a national model, adopted in cities across the country. McCarthy, who had a front-row seat, paid attention, rising up the chain of command after Bratton moved on.
By 2000, he was deputy commissioner of operations, presiding over the CompStat meetings and guiding crime strategy for the entire department. In 2005, New York saw its fewest number of murders, 539, in four decades.
The following year, Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark and a rising star in his own right, took notice. He offered McCarthy the job of top cop and the opportunity to help transform his downtrodden city from a place of “fear and crime,” where the murder rate was six times that of New York City, into one of “possibility and hope.”
The buzz surrounding McCarthy’s move was not unlike what happens in the sports world when a superstar coach agrees to lead a perennially losing team. “His entire professional career has stood for excellence,” Booker said in announcing the hire. The mayor then defended the choice after reporters dug up two alcohol-related incidents from McCarthy’s past: a 1983 off-hours quarrel in which he had gestured toward his gun and a 2005 arrest for angrily protesting a parking violation on behalf of one of his two daughters, now ages 23 and 25.
McCarthy promptly implemented the same crime-fighting strategy that had worked so well in New York. From 2006 to 2009, Newark saw a 12 percent drop in overall crime and a dramatic 40 percent drop in shootings (see sidebar on next page). Despite his successes, the headstrong chief clashed with police union leaders and city council members, who described their relationship with him as rocky. “We hope he does excellent in Chicago and never comes back here,” a police union vice president, Walter Melvin, told the Chicago Sun-Times in 2011.
Meanwhile, in Chicago, Rahm Emanuel was making crime—and his selection of a new police chief—a central issue in his mayoral campaign. One thing was all but certain: If he won, he would ax Jody Weis, the police chief at the time. Weis, a former FBI agent, was the first outsider to lead the department in decades and had performed well under difficult circumstances. After a rocky start, he had kept crime in check, despite the grousing about his G-man background and some questionable administrative decisions. The latter made him a lightning rod for criticism and earned him a no-confidence vote from a faction of the police union.
Emanuel pledged to bring calm to the department by picking a cop’s cop, someone who shared his belief in getting back to beat patrolling and who could make the department more efficient in an era of cost cutting. He also promised to put 1,000 more officers on the streets, yanking some from out behind desks and hiring others.
Rahm found his guy, helped along by a glowing recommendation from Bill Bratton. McCarthy recalls that he and Emanuel “hit it off” at a meeting in April 2011. He was named Chicago’s police chief a little less than a month later, on May 2.
“From day one, we had a shared vision about how to do things,” says McCarthy, who, like the mayor, can be alternately gruff and charming in conversation. The new superintendent moved into an apartment near Millennium Park, where he has been living alone.
Just a few weeks on the job, Emanuel and McCarthy announced the first step in fulfilling the mayor’s campaign pledge: the dismantling of the city’s specialized police units, a process initiated by the interim police chief, Terry Hillard, and continued by McCarthy. The two units McCarthy reassigned, the Mobile Strike Force and the Targeted Response Unit, had been directed to bust up gangs, but Emanuel needed the extra manpower to keep his campaign promise. The 500 officers in those units were assigned beats in various districts. Their expertise hasn’t gone to waste, McCarthy argues; it has just been redirected.
The changes kept coming. In June 2011, he began applying the CompStat system. Then, in March, in what was billed as an effort to streamline the department and save $10 to $12 million, McCarthy announced a consolidation plan that reduced the city’s police districts from 25 to 22. He commissioned a citywide gang audit, or survey, to help officers better understand the ever-changing gang boundaries and affiliations. He introduced a new computer system that delivers gang intelligence to beat officers. And he initiated gang “call-ins”—basically, meetings between police and gang members, mostly those on parole, to try to scare them straight.
Finally, McCarthy touted a “wraparound” strategy designed to better connect residents in crime-ridden neighborhoods with social services, such as job placement, domestic violence counseling, camps for kids, and the like. “I have this big-picture idea about the next phase of community policing in this world,” he says. “I think I’ve got it. That’s what we’re implementing now.”
McCarthy is nothing if not confident.
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Photograph: Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune